The Moth In My Chest

Warning: the following post contains self-harm habits and mental health distress. Reader should proceed with caution.

I have learned to embrace the wiggle-tickle in my chest. It’s been there since I was small and the morning of each school day was framed with a nervous outlook that never changed, except perhaps on Fridays when I knew a weekend break was only a short time away. School was not the only time that tickle stayed preserved in my chest, like a moth thrashing wildly in a jar without air holes in the lid. Over a friends’ houses, if we got in trouble by being too loud or my friend threw a tantrum, my heart would do somersaults and stomach squeezed tightly enough to make me nauseous.

“Did this always happen,” asked my therapist, “Or only sometimes?”

“Always,” I answered, and for once it wasn’t a Harry Potter reference.

I remember trying to explain this feeling to parents, aunts, and grandparents, only to be told, “You’re just excited.”

I hated to be excited then. It made me feel sick, not happy nor eager. It only grew worse in high school.

One elective had a teacher who felt the need to scream at us when we didn’t perform to expectations. I don’t do well to be spoken sternly to, so you can imagine my elevated heartrate when this grown man would yell and berate us to our faces, mere feet away as we sat in our chairs, unable to respond or speak back. At some point, the emotional exhaustion and panic were too much. I remember before one class, I realized I couldn’t do it, not one day more. I ran into the bathroom, covering my mouth as if holding back vomit, and inside a stall, I began to press on my stomach with one hand while forcing the other into my mouth and pushed my fingers to the back of my throat.

I gagged and heaved but nothing came up, despite the fact that I had just come from lunch. I hate throwing up, but right then I would have done anything to escape that class, the school, and even skip out of town as if running from the law. Tears were rolling down my face when I tried over and over, choking on my own wrist and my stomach painfully spasming but without result.

It wasn’t working. I was going to have to go in there and sit while a full grown man screamed in my face and I was helpless to do anything back.

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…

So I didn’t. Instead, I ran out of the bathroom, leaving a relatively clean toilet safe from puke, and took a sharp left into the building’s hallway out of the room where other students were already gathered. I heard someone say, “What’s wrong with Abbie?”

I had tears in my eyes, face flushed hot red, and I was holding onto my school bag like a life preserve keeping me afloat in the panic and despair threatening to drown me. I didn’t stop once I made it into the hallway; I slammed myself into the further hall wall, which was stone, and slid down to the floor while hiccupping sobs turned into keen wails out of my mouth. Another student had followed me in and was now knelt next to me, gently touching my shoulder and saying my name over and over, but I couldn’t respond if I wanted to.

I let myself curl up in a heap on the dusty hall tile and wished for life to just end right then and there.

Finally, the student was pulled away and another teacher, a woman I still admire to this day, was gently patting my shoulders and back. “Abbie, sweetheart, you’re okay. It’s alright. Breathe, honey.”

I wasn’t okay. I felt far from okay, but she was a sweet woman, a mother of three, so she knew just what to do even if she internally had no idea what was happening to me. I didn’t even know.

She was also the wife of the head teacher, who was now on the phone with my mother with a confused and dazed voice, saying, “Honestly, I think she’s having a breakdown or something. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Oh, god, give me that,” I heard his wife say, and she spoke calmly to my mother on the line. “She’s not having a breakdown. She is tired and needs some rest. Don’t listen to him. He doesn’t understand that teenagers can’t always be dragged around the state week after week and practice day after day.”

Eventually, I was sat up and sitting with my back to the wall. I felt beaten and bruised, though I knew I was just puffy-faced from crying so hard, my throat raw from the screams I let out. At some point, I was stood up, brushed off, and we were waiting outside for my mom’s car, who soon pulled up and helped me into the passenger seat. Nothing was said in the car, and I was so thankful as new tears of relief seeped from my eyes.

At home, I went straight into bed and didn’t leave until the late evening to shower.

I haven’t had a huge breakdown like that, not to that extent, but the feelings of panic, despair, and depression have always remained with me. Sometimes for good reasons, other times for no reason at all.

As I grew older, the symptoms worsened, even when life was going very well; a good marriage, job, and outlook on life. But there were thoughts that kept reoccurring. I remember an Alice in Wonderland thought passing through my head, hearing a voice say, “Why don’t you just paint the roses red?” But instead of paint, I imagined the red coming from my wrists.

I sought help at the doctors, and the nurse asked a series of questions before a medicine was prescribed. To this day, I’ve changed through four anti-depressants and three anxiety medicines.

I’ve heard a lot from those who are fans of the “all natural” community; take St. John’s Wort (tried it), get exercise (do it), think positive and be thankful (I try and am). I’ve heard that the medicine I take will kill my liver, weaken my heart, and make me forever dependent on chemicals. All I can say in my own case, for everyone is different, is that the medicine fairly saved my life and my sanity. I couldn’t go through those terrifying thoughts or the impulses that would have led to physical or further mental harm. I couldn’t live with that sickening tickle in my chest ever again, and I decided to no longer put up with it.

My anxiety still leads me on certain habits; I need to stick to my routine or I get upset. I bounce my knee when sitting down but no, I’m not nervous, think of it like a dog wagging their tail contentedly when calm or happy. I pace to think because sitting still and focusing can make it hard to breathe. My head in clearer while I’m moving, and I spent many paper writing sessions at school in a large study room alone so I could pace the room while assembling my theories and abstracts.

But I’m here today, and I’m glad to say that I am. I am always working on my mental health, through my prescriptions, self-care, exercise, eating well, drinking hot tea, and practicing my faiths to hold myself to something higher. That doesn’t mean the same routine will help everyone else going through the mental wringer, but it’s worked for me. That’s all I can ask for.

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